The Art of Social Justice: Woody Guthrie and the Power of Songwriting


Born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, tragedy and personal loss visited Woody Guthrie, early in his childhood, providing a bleak context for his future songs and supplying him with a wry perspective. As a teen, Guthrie turned to busking in the streets for food or money, honing his skills as a musician while developing the keen social conscience that would later be so integral to his legendary music.

While traveling throughout the American landscape during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Woody’s observations of what he saw and experienced has left a lasting and sometimes haunting legacy of images, sounds, and voices of the disenfranchised, and oppressed people with whom he struggled. Although the corpus of his original songs, or as Woody preferred “people’s songs,” are perhaps his most recognized contribution to American culture, the stinging honesty, humor, and wit found throughout his vernacular prose exhibits Woody’s fervent belief in social, political, and spiritual justice. He took up social causes and helped to establish folk music as a force for change and a viable new commercial genre within the music business. 

A generation of folk singers inspired by Guthrie in the 1950s and 1960s went on to fuel some of the most dramatic social change of the century. Despite his folk hero status, Guthrie was modest, and was known for playing down his own creative genius. 

Guthrie wrote more than 1,000 songs including “This Land is Your Land”. Songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Hunter, Harry Chapin, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Andy Irvine, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jerry Garcia, Jay Farrar, Bob Weir, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Childers and Tom Paxton have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.